Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Keeping Labour's Heartlands Happy - Messages From The Polls

Since Labour lost power, there have been two major tendencies within the Party.
One side – whom we might call the left-wing activists, and of whom I suspect I am one – have been calling for ACTION, for opposition. They have derided Ed for failing to take up cudgels on tuition fees, pensions etc. They are the people whom Dan Hodges calls the ‘flat-earthers’, and fears that they will turn off ‘ordinary’ voters.
The other side – whom we might call the 'rightists' – have been calling for ‘credibility’. They seek a move, if anything, right-wards towards the centreground of British politics. They are the people whom Seumas Milne called the ‘Blairite zombies’, and fears that they will drive away Labour’s ‘core support’.

What might the Polls tell us?
January has been a VERY active month in British politics.
So, at the end of everything, can we learn anything from events?

This Rant takes the YouGov opinion polls for the last month on the popularity of the two main parties IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND only.
I have focussed on the North of England because – if ever there was somewhere we could measure the effect of Labour’s policies on Labour’s ‘core support’, it is going to be in the figures for the North of England.

January – the first fortnight
After a Christmas holiday in which they were accused of disappearing altogether, the Labour leadership came out fighting. Perhaps the biggest splash was made by Liam Byrne, who appeared to denounce ‘scroungers’. But the message from all of them was clear, culminating in Ed Balls’s announcement on 13 January that Labour would accept the Tory cuts. It was an unmissable shift to the right.

What effect did this have on Labour’s core support in its heartlands?
If the activists are right it should have plummeted. If Dan Hodges is correct, it should have risen.
And the verdict of the polls … no change.
In the first fortnight, support for Labour virtually flat-lined.

And the message for Labour? ‘All that talking, and no effect.’

January – the third week
On 16th January, Union leader Len McCluskey came out publicly against Labour’s lurch to the right. Ed Miliband came under fire from all the Unions, and the newspapers were full of his impending downfall. Meanwhile, Labour politicians hit back hard at the Unions.

And what effect did this have on Labour’s support in its heartlands?
It plummeted; Labour’s support, 59% on the 17th, had dropped to 47% by the 20th; a disaster.

Of course, why this happened is up for debate. It is arguable that the activists are correct, and that the fall was due to an outflow of disgruntled 'core supporters', alerted to and angered by the apparent lurch to the right. But it is just as arguable that the activists are wrong, and that the fall was due to an outflow of disgruntled centrists, alarmed that the Unions seemed once again to be exerting influence.
Perhaps it was neither – perhaps people were just fed up with a Party in turmoil, or a leader under fire.

And the message for Labour? ‘Don’t fall out (at least in public) with the Left.’

January – the fourth week
The week from the 20th to 27th January was clearly Labour’s best week in the North of England.
Support for the Tories fell from 38% to 27%. Support for Labour rose from 47% to 56%.

So what was happening in this momentous week which might explain such a significant shift? What restored the heart in the Labour heartlands?

Answer: nothing that Labour did. As far as Labour was concerned, the week was fairly much a time of reflection on the crisis of the week before.
Instead, the week’s news was dominated by disastrous economic figures, and Osborne’s discomfiture at the Davos summit. Ed weighed into Tory ‘arrogance’ on the economy at PMQs – it was a week when ‘it’s hurting, but it’s not working’ began to hit home.

Perhaps support for Labour was always going to recover after the disagreements of the previous week were over, but it is hard to deny that support for Labour in the North of England appears not so much dependent on what Labour is saying, but on what the economy is doing. When you think about it, this would make sense; it is the North of England which is most in danger from the economic recession, and it makes sense that they would tend to blame the Tory government as times worsened.

And the message for Labour? ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’

Into February
By the end of January and into February, Labour appeared to have sorted out its act. The Shadow Cabinet had retreated significantly from its rightwards lurch -- instead, the Labour leadership had decided that they did not support the cuts (it was just that the Tories were going to leave such a mess that Labour would not be able to reverse them immediately). Despite saying that they agreed to the cap in principle, Labour eventually decided to oppose it in Parliament. Ed Miliband scored a number of significant victories on the issue of bonuses, which had the coalition scurrying to echo his points.And opposition to the NHS mounted to a crescendo ... led, at last, by Shadow Minister Andy Burnham.
So January ended with the Labour Party beginning to look – at last – like an opposition.
The activists were in their element.
This was Labour 'taking the fight to the Tories' - and I don't think I have been as proud to be Labour since 2010.

And the effect of all this activism?
By 6th February, support for the Tories in the North of England – which had bottomed at 27% on 27th January, had risen to 38%. And support for Labour had dropped from a high of 56% to just 47%.

You’ve got to be flabbergasted.
If there was anywhere in the country where this burst of opposition activism might have been welcomed, surely it would have been in the Labour heartlands of the North of England? It is the North of England which will suffer most from the WRB and NHS reforms. Dammit, in the middle of the week the Tory Health Minster came out and openly insulted northerners.

But, unless the figures are lying, it is hard to avoid concluding that all that activism turned northern voters off Labour.
A win for Dan Hodges?

And the Message for Labour?
To the extent that this shallow analysis of a single poll can be trusted, the message for Labour seems to be that voters in their core northern heartlands are left cold by policy, turned off by activism, and turned away by dissension.

And if the Labour leadership want to keep hold of their core support whilst they appeal to ‘centrist’ voters, the message of the opinion polls seems to be this:
ATTACK on the economy, PUSH on the jobs
… and you will keep your heartlands happy.

Unless, that it, you can convince me otherwise...


  1. Of course, all this acknowledges the significant limitations of polls - for example, read this: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/4241.
    I am told by Dr Eoin Clarke that 'internal cross tabs in a poll are not weighted to the regional demographics', which is fair comment.
    When you are taking an unrepresentative regional section from a sample of just 1000 people, you are going to get all kinds of blips and errors.

  2. Haha - and then, to make me look a total liar, don't you just know that today's poll shows Labour leaping to a 17-point lead 52:35 and, yes, potentially undermining the whole point I was making!!!
    Moral: don't trust the polls.